Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Managing the Entropy of Neighborhoods

Orenco Gardens, near the Orenco Station
urbanist community in Oregon
StrongTowns recently highlighted a post from Chicago-area planner Pete Saunders.  I don’t know Saunders, but wish I did.  (If he was at CNU 24, I regret not meeting him.)  He makes many points with which I agree and finds ways to make those points in ways that were new and fresh to my ears.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t quibble with or elaborate upon a few details.

Saunders writes about the dynamics of neighborhoods, how they fit within their cities and regions, how they evolve over time, and how their residents can affect their trajectories.

Usually when I link an article or blog post, it’s with the hope, but limited expectation, that readers will follow the link.  I know what percentage of links I follow.  It isn’t particularly high.  We all have limited time.

But in this case, I really hope you’ll follow the link.  It’ll make my comments below more intelligible.  Also he makes at least one point that I’ve rarely read as cogently.

He notes that both metropolitan cores and suburban fringes aren’t monolithic, but are composed of many distinct communities, primarily at a neighborhood level.  The Bay Area isn’t a ring of homogeneous suburbs surrounding three homogeneous cores in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, but is instead three clusters of relatively dense, but distinctive neighborhoods, surrounded by a constellation of relatively less dense but still distinctive neighborhoods.

Sometimes, in our desire to make our world more understandable, we simplify our way out of that complexity, but we lose ability to comprehend our world when we do so.

Saunders concludes his post with his ten “immutable laws of neighborhood and community dynamics”.  I’ve copied the ten below and responded to each, not so much to disagree with Saunders, but to provide my own coloring to his laws as a way of furthering the conversation.

Neighborhoods have life cycles -- they are born, they grow, they mature, they age, they die. – I think the point here is the definition of “die”.  To me, with the exception of some neighborhoods in Detroit where the circumstances were exceptional, neighborhoods don’t die.  Given a location with continuing value, the land will never fall fallow.  Instead, neighborhoods will regularly slide toward periods of being relatively moribund and then reincarnate.

Our goals, as urban planners and as citizens, is to provide the right set of rules, incentives, and stimuli such that the declines are relatively shallow, that the slumps don’t become vacuums sucking in lives and hope, and that the reincarnations can reuse much of the existing building stock.

Neighborhoods are built to serve economic classes -- poor, working class, middle class, upper middle class and wealthy. – Perhaps not always true in the misty past, but largely true beginning with the dawn of the 20th century and indisputably true beginning with the post World War II boom.

Neighborhoods are also built to serve the needs of a certain era. – A few years back, I found myself in an extended comment thread exchange with a couple of Sonoma residents over a matter of urban practice then on the Sonoma ballot.

(Actually, I thought they were a pair of Sonoma residents given their differing perspectives and their strong interest in the Sonoma ballot measure.  I later found that both were a single individual who liked to argue with himself.  And he lived in Riverside.  That’ll teach me to debate on the internet.)

Anyway, they (he?) told me that my perspective as a Petaluman wasn’t valid because Sonoma was a cooler place than Petaluma.  They pointed to several districts of Petaluma to illustrate their point.  And I had to admit that I found Sonoma a cool place.

But I argued with their dismissal of Petaluman opinions.  I noted that the only difference between the two cities was that Petaluma had been economically active and growing during the 70s and 80s, a period during which the concepts of land-use were something that current urban thinkers find unfortunate, and that Sonoma had been quiescent during that period.

So, yes, I concur that neighborhoods are built to serve the needs and/or planning concepts of a certain era and add that it’s not fair to judge the current thinking of current community members just because their community expanded during a past era when the planning concepts may have been less than ideal in current views.

Neighborhoods built prior to the middle of the 20th century were built to serve multiple (but usually not all) classes. – Great point and a key reason why many urbanists, a list that includes Jeff Speck, have stated that the pre-World War II subdivisions are more capable of becoming walkable places than more recent subdivisions.

Because older neighborhoods were built to serve multiple classes, they are more adaptable to reuse. – Again, very true and a reason that older neighborhoods can reincarnate with less stimulus and shorter, shallower periods of decline.

The shelf life of older neighborhoods is long; the shelf life of newer neighborhoods is short. – Yup.

Neighborhoods can change their trajectory by becoming attractive to a class different from what it was originally built for. – Not a point about which I’d previously thought, but several examples came quickly to mind.  I don’t think neighborhoods need to change their nature, but I concur that it can be valid tool of reincarnation.

Regional assets represented at a neighborhood scale can also impact a neighborhood's place on the spectrum. – Again, very true.  In Petaluma, one of the most significant examples is the soon-to-open downtown Petaluma SMART train station across from the comfortable but sleepy East D Street neighborhood.  I suspect the train will have significant impacts on the neighborhood, impacts for which little planning has yet been done.  I’m intrigued by the direction the neighborhood could go, but also fear for the neighborhood in the absence of a plan.

Wealth clusters within neighborhoods and spreads outward slowly.  Poverty taints a neighborhood and spreads outward quickly. -  Unfortunately true and the urban planner equivalent of “Bad news travels around the world in the time that it take good news to put on its shoes.”

Neighborhoods can mitigate conditions within them, but they are largely subject to broader social and economic trends at the regional or even national level, and are beyond their control. – Yup.  There is little that many Detroit neighborhoods could have done to change the path of their descent.

That was a good exercise.  Saunders offered insights on which I enjoyed building.  I trust he won’t mind me hitching my wagon to his star.  (I’ll advise him of this post.)

When I next write, it will be my updated calendar of opportunities for North Bay urbanists to become more publicly involved.  As an advance hint, if you missed Chuck Marohn during his January visit to Santa Rosa, you might wish to block out Saturday, July 9 on your calendar.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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